Setting Haiti Free, Visually: A Talk With Photographer Steven Baboun

Words and Interview by Genice Phillips 

Visual stories of tragedy, poverty and political strife are commonplace for Haiti, the first black republic and the second oldest independent nation in the Western Hemisphere. But many young, visual artists today are counteracting the narrowing perspectives of Haitian life seen in mainstream media, including photographer Steven Baboun.

A junior at American University in Washington, D.C., Steven has been documenting a “new Haiti” – capturing the attitudes, personalities and striking beauty of Haitian people through several photo projects.

His first published photobook, Island Visuelle: La Femme, shares the quiet, powerful grace and complexities of Haitian womanhood. Using his Canon T3i cam and the VSCO editing app, each composition is a beautifully-crafted narrative illuminated through the distinctive use of nature and color.

He’s also the founder of Humans of Haiti, a riff off the original portrait project Humans of New York (HONY). Created in May 2014, Steven has since taken hundreds of intimate photos that break down misconceptions of the country where he was raised.

After discovering his work on Instagram, I immediately reached out to him learn more about his artistry and how photography is changing the vision of Haiti, both from an internal and external perspective.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity. All images provided by Steven Baboun. 

POTENT: When did you start taking photos?

Steven Baboun: It started after the earthquake [January 2010]. There were a lot of American institutions coming to the country and documenting the whole earthquake situation and the living situation in Haiti. And I want to say that I was disgusted and really mad about the way they documented it.

And not only in Haiti, but when photojournalists go to a country, they tend to want to document the disasters. That’s what sells and what provokes emotion, and I understand. But just the way they did it in my home country made me realize that I want to be a photojournalist just to change – and this is going to sound really cliché – but just to change the game.

When I was 14, I got my first camera. That’s what helped me develop an eye for color and composition. When I was 17, I got an IG account and started following photojournalists and people documenting situations in a whole new light and a beautiful light.

I started taking pictures and documented Haiti like no one has documented before. There are a few of us that are trying to document Haiti peacefully and positively portray the country that we live in.

POTENT: So making sure that any documentation is showing respect for the culture and the country.

Steven: Yes, exactly. It’s embarrassing to Haitians, I know, when they see pictures on the internet of them and of their situation. Pictures can be exaggerated and sometimes you might not know the story behind them. So that’s why I do what I do.

9

POTENT: This is your first photo book, Island Visuelle: La Femme. Why was your focus on the women of Haiti?

Steven: There’s a bunch of answers to that question, but the simplest version is I grew up with a lot of women in my life and they’ve changed my life more than men could ever change my life. Growing up gay in this country, I have more female friends and I was more influenced by them.

My friend and I decided to go shoot [photos] one day and I had just shot her, took a bunch a pictures of her.  And the way she interacted with the environment, it was with such grace and power and authority. She embraced the environment and I knew I wanted to shoot more portraits like these.

Just the way I think women interact with the environment is so interesting. They express things in a way that I can never express as a man. It’s kind of an extension of these women and me saying something through them. That’s why I’ve wanted to focus on women – they are a huge part of my photography and my work.

madame tropique

madame tropique

POTENT: In the foreword of the book, you write that your work and art is about “setting Haiti free visually” and I thought that was such a powerful statement. Can you talk more about that and what do you feel Haiti needs to be freed from, specifically? How do you feel art or photojournalism is doing that today?

Steven: Setting Haiti free visually is something that I’ve developed [over time]. Photography sets things free. I feel photography explains a lot of things for people who aren’t exposed to certain situations or experiences.

When people see an image of Haiti, I want them to say: “there’s no way in hell that this can be Haiti”. It’s breaking that misconception. We’re not just slums and we’re not just adoption agencies, or rubble on the ground. We’re not just poverty. I mean, we are all those things, but that’s just a little percentage of who we are.

If you were to Google Haiti or search hashtags of Haiti, yeah, there are pictures of beaches in Haiti, but there are pictures of missionaries doing work and adoption agencies and I want to filter that. When you do a search, I want you to see beaches and color and people being productive.

What’s really interesting is that professional photojournalism isn’t setting Haiti free visually. It’s the people who have lived in Haiti, just normal people who aren’t even photographers but have an IG account that are taking pictures of their everyday life. I think we are photojournalists. Native Haitians and the diaspora – they are the people who are setting Haiti free visually.

We know our country best and we know how other people view us and we know we want to change that.

POTENT: In the last part of the foreword, you assert that the photobook puts “womanhood first instead of art.” Do you feel there is a lack of focus on women and their stories in the art world? Does this apply particularly to Haitian women and other women of the Caribbean?

Steven: I’ve left that up for interpretation but I’m mostly talking about women in the Caribbean. And when I’m talking about art, I’m mostly talking about photography and video.

I feel like – and I’ve heard it from other artists – that women are used as props, or just something to add meaning to a picture. When they [viewers] look at my photography, I want them to see the women and their emotion…acknowledging the power they have, the grace and beauty they give to the whole picture itself. I want them to see who they are instead of saying “this is Steven’s picture”. That comes second. I want them to see this woman in the environment, expressing something – let me understand her and connect with her.

POTENT: All the women featured, were they connected to you personally in some way?

Steven: Not all of them, but most of them are really close to me. Before shooting them and before making this book, I made sure that I made a personal connection. Just talking, just connecting, so when we shot, we shot meaningful photographs.

Once they got in front of what we were shooting, it was so natural that it kind of scared me. These women just did them. I did not direct anything they did, any expression they had. It was actually them directing me, which was so beautiful and out of place because I’ve never been behind the camera with someone telling me “I’m going to do this”.  I just went with it.

POTENT: How were you able to decide which images would be best to tell the story, overall?

Steven: It’s always hard to pick and choose, but it was very natural. I sat down with the women featured and if we had some mutual reaction [to the images], then that was the picture in the book.

I was very lucky to have friends who were invested in it. It’s their passion and their support for my vision that actually made it a group effort. We’re all divided – in the states, in the Caribbean. But every time I come home, they’re the ones that remind me; they’re the ones who really are the foundation of the book.

It’s really important when you want to make something for an audience other than your home, that everyone’s on board with it.

st. jeanita belle

st. jeanita belle

POTENT: What has been the reception from the book?

Steven: I did not expect the amount of positive feedback and I’m taken aback by how many people want to invest in my work; just seeing Haiti in another light. A lot of the purchases from the book came from the US and it was very interesting. There’s been a lot of people reaching out, just saying “thank you”. People from the Caribbean saying thank you for showing people who we are, how we live, and doing justice to our aesthetic.

Some people in the US are saying, “I’ve been lied to – every information that I was fed [about Haiti].” So, this is social justice in a book.

I created this book just to say, “Whatever you know about Haiti, throw it away”. This is a new era, this is a new Haiti. But other people took it a step further and analyzed it in ways that I never imagined.

POTENT: You launched Humans of Haiti last year. How were you able to bring this project to life?

Steven: It was my first year back from college and I was working on photography for the whole summer. One of my friends had texted me and suggested I start the project. She told me to connect with the guy [Brandon Stanton] who created Humans of New York. I emailed him and never got an answer back. So I decided that if I want others to see who we are, then I should just start Humans of Haiti. I texted my friend back, saying let’s start it. And we did. It was just out of summer boredom, just us wanting to tell stories and meet people.

"What do you do?" "I'm a tennis player and coach." "Do you like it?" "It doesn't pay too well, but you can't put a price on passion."

“What do you do?”
“I’m a tennis player and coach.”
“Do you like it?”
“It doesn’t pay too well, but you can’t put a price on passion.”

POTENT: How have you been able to manage Humans of Haiti and keep it going?

Steven: It’s been really hard to maintain because I’m currently the only person taking pictures and documenting stories.

I’ve reached out to a lot of people and most denied because, believe it or not, it’s not easy here [in Haiti] to just go up to someone and take their pictures because we’re so easily exploited, media-wise. They see cameras as weapons. It’s hard and dangerous. I’ve almost been attacked several times. It’s not as easy as people think. But now I’m working with someone else to keep it going.

"I love the ocean. It's always peaceful. It's God's best creation." "Mwen renmen lanmè a. Li kalm nèt. Se pi bèl kreyasyon Bondye fè."

“I love the ocean. It’s always peaceful. It’s God’s best creation.”
“Mwen renmen lanmè a. Li kalm nèt. Se pi bèl kreyasyon Bondye fè.”

POTENT: Nuestra Cuba, the upcoming documentary on the first Afro-Cuban female directors, is another project you’re connected to. How did you get involved?

Steven: Amberly [the director of Nuestra Cuba] is one of my best friends. I met her my freshmen year; she was a graduate student. We actually met through a Haitian organization in D.C. They needed videographers for a project and we both accepted it. Before the project started, we met at a café and talked for hours and hours. She’s like my sister.

She’s one of the reasons why I have the eye that I have [in photography] and she’s inspired me to seek the justice I want to portray in my pictures.

Nuestra Cuba Documentary

Nuestra Cuba is her graduate thesis and personal project. She called me up and said let’s do this together. Currently I manage the PR and social media because I’m in school and can’t be on the ground in Cuba, shooting.

Production is still going, but the documentary is essentially about following the stories of forgotten women, forgotten talent, and how they’ve contributed to the story of filmmaking and Afro-Caribbean cinema. The documentary is telling their story, reviving their legacy.

POTENT: With the many projects that you’re working on, how do you balance everything?

Steven: I’m a Film and Media Arts major and also minoring in Education at AU. I was really lucky to have family and friends that supported my higher education here in the states because what normally happens is people in Haiti, after high school, they go to Europe, Canada, or to the States to study. So I’m here, but my heart is in Haiti. When I am back there, I am creatively drained. I love Washington, D.C., but it’s not where I want to be, creatively. Everything I want to accomplish is back home, in Haiti. I manage. Living in the states for three years, has really opened my eyes as well. Some have a good idea of what Haiti is and it’s good to see both sides and work with both sides. I’m really intrigued and I really want to inform. But as for juggling projects, it really is motivation and whenever I come back.

POTENT: As you continue to grow as a photographer and learn more about your craft, what sort of impact do you want to have in Haiti, or the Caribbean in general?

Steven: My goal, my photography… the things I want to do with my photography is nothing huge. I obviously can’t change the world with a couple of pictures. But I can get people to scroll through my IG and make them stop for a few seconds and say “Wow, this where he lives. This is Haiti. This is the Caribbean”. I just want people to realize that we are a medium and platform for art.

To purchase Island Visuelle: La Femme, visit Blurb. Proceeds from the book will go to the documentary project, Nuestra Cuba, until January 2016.
View more of Steven’s photography on his website, and follow him on Instagram and Twitter.